At lunch this week I walked past one of my favorite spots near where I work, this little oasis of a pink iron fence, pink and teal lamppost, courtyard, and overhead trellis, all in front of a gorgeous building with pink and teal accents. The charming pink fence in particular reminded me how beautiful and important boundaries can be, relevant to two recent conversations I had with study participants in my job coordinating investigational treatments for social anxiety and depression. (As always, names and life details are changed to preserve anonymity).
One young man with social anxiety – let’s call him Ben – came in for a study visit and started talking to me about his younger cousins, around 11 and 13, who have recently been entering his room without knocking, and then talking endlessly to him. (He lives with his uncle.) He thinks this is just starting to be a problem because, as part of his quest to overcome social anxiety, he’s been spending more time out of his room and with his cousins. He guesses that this change makes his cousins think it’s okay to talk to him almost ALL the time, even when he’s in his room. I asked Ben if he could ask his cousins to respect his alone time while he’s in his room, or at least to ask them to knock before entering. He said he’s afraid that would be rude!
What’s really rude (in my opinion) is the fact that his cousins enter without knocking! Of course, they are still relatively young, but all the more reason to kindly talk to them about respecting other people’s boundaries. Understandably, Ben didn’t see it this way until I shared my thoughts, but he seemed to quickly agree with me. The tricky part is that, as hard as it was for Ben to expose himself to social situations (one of the keys to overcoming social anxiety) by spending more time out of his room and with his cousins, it will be even harder for him to expose himself by expressing disagreement/disapproval (the clinical term, haha) to his cousins.
This discomfort with expressing disagreement/disapproval to others is a) a symptom of social anxiety, b) something a lot of people, even those without social anxiety, experience, and c) a barrier to setting healthy boundaries. When I say boundaries, I mean “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits” (Wikipedia- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_boundaries). Even I have trouble with this! However, one helpful way I mentally approach setting boundaries is comparing short-term to long-term outcomes. Not speaking up and just going along when your roommate doesn’t do the dishes, your friend keeps inviting you out to bars/clubs and you’re getting tired, your cousins keep barging into your room, etc, may be easier and less uncomfortable in the short term, but speaking up in a kind, firm way will almost definitely improve your quality of life in the long term. Also, practicing setting boundaries now will make it easier to do so in the future, when the stakes might be higher!
However, boundaries can definitely be flexible, as long as you know where your firm lines are. Sometimes it’s okay to inconvenience yourself and go to your friend’s show on a weekday night just to support them, and sometimes it’s okay to pass on an invitation and show you care for your friend in another way/at another time. Everything in moderation. But when you start burning out, getting irritated, or experiencing any of the many ways your body tells you enough is enough, here are two good resources with phrases to help you set boundaries and say no:
Just as your relationship with others can improve by setting boundaries, so too can your relationship with yourself. Another social anxiety study participant, Jessie, recently came to my office for exposure therapy (giving a speech in front of an audience and watching video playback of herself). After the video playback, Jessie started listing all these negative thoughts she had about her speech: “I could’ve phrased that better, I don’t look smart enough, I’m not convincing anyone about my position, I forgot the name of that town, etc.” I realized that I used to have a lot of those same self-criticisms, for one simple reason: I didn’t think I would ever get better at anything without harsh self-criticism. As time goes by, however, I’m starting to realize that self-kindness is the smoothest, most effective, and happiest path to self-improvement. When you find yourself filled with self-criticism, maybe it’s time to set boundaries within yourself, fencing out the negative voice that is no expression of your truest, deepest, worthiest self. This article has 3 unique, actionable tips for dealing with that negative voice: https://psychcentral.com/blog/3-unique-techniques-for-navigating-a-negative-inner-voice/.
How are you setting boundaries with yourself and with others? Let us know in the comments!